Last week I wrote about how important I think it is to keep challenging yourself, even in difficult times. This week, I’ve been applying that same thought process to the idea of challenging others.
Challenging is sometimes a rather loaded word. We’re all familiar with the ‘challenging colleague’ or ‘challenging boss’ as a euphemism for someone who’s a complete nightmare to work with. Obviously, we don’t want to be that kind of challenging. There is an alternative, however.
When we think about the people who make us feel strong, energised and motivated, they tend to be the people who challenge us. They’re the people who ask the questions we hadn’t thought of, the ones who see through our self-imposed limits and the ones who ask us “what if…”
As well as seeking out those people in my own life, I try to be that person for others. In fact, you could describe an awful lot of coaching as asking the questions that clients have been avoiding and inspiring clients to rise to meet your expectations of them. By that definition, I’ve pretty much made a career out of being that kind of person.
The thing is, everyone who takes a leadership role is making a career out of being that kind of person. Leadership isn’t about having the huge office, or making the big decisions. Those are definitely a part of it, but the most important part of leadership is about getting the most out of people. After years of coaching, I can definitively say that having high (but fair) expectations of people and communicating those with enthusiasm and care is the best way to motivate others.
I was discussing this with a friend the other day. Well, actually, she was mostly ranting, and I was mostly listening. She’s doing a Master’s degree and is deeply frustrated with the whole process, primarily because she doesn’t feel sufficiently challenged.
Her biggest complaint revolved around a piece of work that she’d submitted that came back with an A-grade. I would like to say that she was annoyed, but that would mean passing up a prime opportunity to use the word incandescent. She was absolutely adamant that it deserved a C+ at the very most. Once she’d calmed down a little, we worked out that the main reason she was so unhappy was that she now felt even more demotivated. I see her point. If the bare minimum of effort can get you the top grade, it becomes increasingly difficult to put in your best efforts. Even those who are strongly self-motivated will feel undervalued and, to put it mildly, a bit annoyed.
So how do we walk that line? How do we balance being challenging without being ‘challenging’? One of the biggest differences comes when you genuinely believe that the other person is going to achieve the thing you ask of them. No-one wants to be set up to fail, but neither do people want to feel that they are just going through the motions. We want to feel that we’re learning and growing and achieving something of value.
To challenge people effectively, it’s important that you have good insight. You need to know the person you’re trying to inspire, and you need to understand the scope of the task you’re giving them. There’s a unique type of frustration that comes from being handed a task that “should only take 10 minutes” by someone who has never attempted to do it themselves and is unaware of the 3 hours of prep-work needed to allow the 10 minute task to be completed successfully.
Sometimes, you won’t be able to be sure about the scope of the challenge you’re giving someone. This is when it’s critical that you’ve created a supportive relationship. Being challenged by someone who’s there to support you is empowering. Being set the same task by someone you don’t trust creates fear. Your staff need to know that you understand that you’re challenging them, and they need to feel safe enough to come to you if you or they have underestimated the challenge they’re faced with.
So far, I’ve been talking about this in a work context, where you’re setting someone else tasks. This kind of challenge applies to all aspects of our lives though. Being a leader and a role model is something that permeates all of our relationships, because it becomes an intrinsic part of ourselves. You don’t need authority over someone to offer them challenges. And that friend I mentioned earlier; after talking through how de-motivated she was feeling, we’ve created a challenge for her to make her next uni assignment something that she would be proud to read aloud. Now she’s really enthused, and I get to listen to someone read a 2000-word academic essay.
Oh well. No-one said leadership was supposed to be easy.